In Black Widow, Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), clad in chic black-and-white leather, fends off the ominously named villain group calling themselves “The Red Room” — a specialised Russian military programme gone rogue with plans of world domination by subjugating the free will of young female assassins, aka Black Widows — who can topple countries.

Natasha herself was a former soldier of the Red Room before she escaped and took the organisation down (covered via dialogue; that story is perhaps left for a prequel? You never know with this kind of stuff). Her family, however, wasn’t as lucky. See, despite the superhero-action premise of the story — it’s actually more of a Mission: Impossible-style thriller than an Avengers movie — Natasha’s story is about losing and regaining family.

Make that a make-shift, fake family.

Starting off in Ohio in 1995, Natasha is a freckled, bicycle-riding teenager with a bubbly kid-sister Yelena, and a mother (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener) who is more fascinated with nature and science than her kids. When her little one begins to cry after scratching her knee, she diverts her kids’ attention with a science fact: the glow in the nearby trees is called bioluminescence, she says. Surely, that’s a big word, but from the way the scene plays out, this is not the first time mommy started talking big science words to her children.

Black Widow just works, and the best part is one doesn’t have to know the lore of the Marvel cinematic universe to enjoy it

Come evening, the father (David Harbour, Stranger Things), somewhat drunk, has a muffled conversation with the mother, and within minutes the family is scuttling away in the van, weapons locked and loaded. See, Natasha lives with a makeshift spy family that was infiltrating America. They barely escape the country in a flashy, fast-paced action sequence.

There are many action sequences in Black Widow — almost all of them deserving of the big screen. And there is a lot of humour as well.

When Yelena, who is separated from Natasha after the family is dissolved upon returning to the motherland, finds her big sis again years later, she makes fun of the Black Widow’s trademark fighting stance.

You know, she asks her, “the pose” — where the Black Widow crouches on one knee, stretches the other leg, and whips her head up — how does one do that in the middle of a fight? Is she thinking that everyone is looking at her? Natasha is a poser, Yelena pokes sarcastically at her estranged sis.

Set before and during the events of Captain America: Civil War (notice the change in Natasha’s hairstyle), Black Widow is about family then — you know, the forever-embedded story point of Fast and Furious movies, only better, and less fake.

A dinner table conversation between Natasha, Yelena, her father and mother — one a former Black Widow agent, and the other a Russian Captain America makeshift named the Red Guardian — plays like a bad holiday get-together of a dysfunctional family. It would be a great scene in a Steve Martin movie, if the villains — the Task Master (Olga Kurylenko) and Dreykov (Ray Winstone, subtly hammy), the head of the Red Room — didn’t intervene a few minutes later.

In between flashes of humour and grand visual effects, the acting finds wiggle room. Florence Pugh (Little Women, playing Yelena here), Weisz, Harbour and Johansson are top-notch, each bringing the decade-long weight of their backstories through subtle emotional shifts in scenes. These little things make or break movies — and Marvel, despite the monthly, clockwork-like offerings, at least has great quality control on what it is making.

Also, in Marvel fashion, Black Widow sets up both the Hawkeye series and a Black Widow sequel, or maybe a prequel. A decade later, and that too, after every male hero has gotten their solo film, one still can’t get enough of Johansson as the titular character; so, yeah, bring her back again in another solo movie.

The film just works, and the best part is you don’t have to know the lore of the Marvel cinematic universe to enjoy it. Black Widow is a great standalone piece of blockbuster cinema.

Directed by Cate Shortland, screenplay by Eric Pearson, from a story by Jac Schaeffer Ned Benson, Black Widow is rated PG-13. It is streaming now on Disney+, and should be out in Pakistani cinemas by the time you read this.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 18th, 2021

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